Cristina Odone warns that heros are dangerous

We seem to have forgotten that heroes have usually led people to disaster

My father, brought up in Mussolini's Italy, has always been wary of heroes, maintaining that they are not necessary to a civilised society. In fact, they are positively dangerous: looking up to someone, he claims, inevitably leads to blindness.

He remembers how at his primary school he had to learn Il Duce's sayings by rote (his favourite was "it is better to die as a lion than to live as a sheep"); but at home he heard the same Glorious Leader being vehemently condemned at the dinner table. One person's hero, it seemed, could be another's villain.

History has shown that the collective hero-worship my father witnessed did make for disaster: Il Duce, like Adolf Hitler, could hold an audience spellbound, inspire the troops . . . and make ordinary people do extraordinarily evil things. Yet today we have cast off all concern for the dark underside of the contemporary hero. Perhaps because they never had to deny their past idols as the Italians and Germans (and Russians) had to do, Britons seem capable of seeing their heroes only as shiny, benevolent figures in whose footsteps they must follow.

Half of our entertainments, from Big Brother to the Cannes Film Festival, are designed to select the hero of the hour; many of our industries profit from coining and reproducing the heroic image around the globe.

Indeed, you could argue that - from David Beckham with his hair cornrowed posing beside Nelson Mandela, to Colonel Tim Collins grinning behind his sunglasses amid the sands of Iraq - there has never been a better time for heroes. It is as if - in the west, at least - in the midst of our affluent yet pedestrian existence (an existence stripped of mystery, magic and religion), we yearn for someone bold and brilliant to emerge and show us life written in capital letters, shouted from the rooftops, shining with golden possibilities. We want to be awestruck, but science has showed us the tricks behind every bit of magic, natural or man-made. We want to believe, but the churches have been debunked as hocus-pocus, or demonised as fundamentalist. Enter the hero.

We don't ask a lot of them: no need to take a great principled stand, or overthrow an oppressive regime. No, we'll make do with an awe-inspiring free-kick, a few stirring words. That's enough - and then we're ready to fall to our knees and idolise these individuals for showing us life in its grandeur.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The new censorship